A new dating technique using mud wasps’ nests has recently shown that a kangaroo painted on the ceiling of a rock shelter in Western Australia is 17,500-17,100 years old, making it the oldest known in situ painting in Australia.
The research, published in Nature Human Behaviour, was led by Andy Gleadow from the University of Melbourne and involved the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation, the Universities of Western Australia, Wollongong, and Manchester, the Australian National Science and Technology Organisation, Rock Art Australia, and Dunkeld Pastoral. The team used mud wasps’ nests to date the painting. These wasps often build their nests in rock shelters, sometimes causing damage to or completely covering rock paintings, but they contain organic matter that can be sampled for radiocarbon dating.
Unusually, in this rock shelter in the Kimberley region, there were nests both under the kangaroo painting and over it, which thus gave a maximum and a minimum date. Damien Finch of the University of Melbourne said, ‘We radiocarbon dated three wasps’ nests underlying the painting and three nests built over it to determine, confidently, that the painting is between 17,500 and 17,100 years old, most likely 17,300 years old.’
The 2m-long kangaroo is a typical example of paintings of the Irregular Infill Animal or Naturalistic period, which often feature life-size animals. Based on earlier research studying the stylistic features and the order of overlapping paintings, this had been identified as the oldest style of painting, then followed by the Giwon style, with its paintings of decorated human figures with headdresses and boomerangs.
The researchers sampled 27 mud wasps’ nests associated with 16 paintings in eight different rock shelters, and the ages established by the new wasps’ nest dating support this sequence, with the Naturalistic style paintings produced between 17,000 and 13,000 years ago. But further research is planned, as the team aims to date more wasps’ nests to clarify the timeline of Aboriginal rock art in the Kimberley.
While the kangaroo is the oldest known painting in Australia so far, there may even be older paintings yet to be discovered. Sven Ouzman, from University Western Australia, said, ‘This iconic kangaroo image is visually similar to rock paintings from islands in south-east Asia dated to more than 40,000 years ago, suggesting a cultural link – and hinting at still older rock art in Australia.’